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Thoughts: Moby Dick, or The Whale

Moby-Dick; or, The WhaleMoby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very little of this drama, the plot itself, begs any question of me. In fact, Melville never really succeeded in suspending my disbelief. My frame of mind never left the reality of the world in which Melville wrote his masterpiece. I read the events and scientific diatribes as words in a murky book, not as real occurrences marooned on the land of readers’ imaginations.

How brilliant!

This grounding on the shore of reality, interpreting every word as a result of Melville’s pen rather than Ishmael’s…well…experience or imagination, causes me to ask so many questions which truly delve into the depths of the brilliance behind the book Moby Dick.

Why does Ishmael tell the story? Can we trust him? Do the events of the story really happen or does he only indulge his knack for story telling? Does he only want to bolster his own self-efficacy as a man of import, having witnessed such magnificent things? Do the answers matter? And why the Old Testament references? Why the insanity? Why do scenes starring Captain Ahab digress into Shakespearean rhythms? Why the textbook tutelage? Does this only serve Ishmael’s ego? And, ultimately, why whales?

The list of questions go on and on but I must assume that Melville makes his choices intentionally. But to what end? I don’t think he has a message to preach, but maybe a picture to paint of human existence.

Melville concocts Ishmael, the most famous first-person narrator in American literature. Of course, this leaves the entire story exposed to the scrutiny of the readers judicial branch. But would we contemplate this narrative as deeply if an omniscient third-person narrator dictated these events to us? Would we then swallow them as fact? Perhaps Melville doesn’t want us to suspend our disbelief. Maybe he wants us to consider Ishmael’s potential flaws precisely so we might think of his story as a possible myth or allegory. If we do, we open our minds to the ideas which myths and allegories pull best from our psyches. If we consider his word as truth, as we do with those who disseminate facts, we might find ourselves distracted from understanding our experience. One must also concede that the best way to understand our experience may be to listen to one who shares it with us.

Symbols abound in Moby Dick, though different readers might find different ones. Ultimately, among the list of incidental symbols, two formed my interpretation of this narrative.

In several instances, Ishmael likens the sea to the human soul. If we follow this idea, we can glean how the Pequod’s voyage might resemble mankind’s journey within himself. Then we consider how our souls resemble the frighteningly vast power of the world in which they exists. What a struggle for any person – between the abyss of themselves and the vast expanse of the world! We might consider how our psyche constantly wrestles to live within two fearful parallels of the soul and the world.

Also, I can’t believe that a man such as Ishmael, who deifies the Leviathan to such great lengths, does not somehow mean to symbolize God with Moby Dick. Ironically, the anatomy, history and science lectures – which usually serve to pronounce the falseness of a god – might better serve in this case to validate him. In an attempt to intellectually compartmentalize a being which he equally glorifies – by factually describing every part of him – he fails to understand the apparent intelligence in Moby Dick and fails to squeeze his essence into the same construct as the Pequod’s victims. Moby Dick does not fit the scientifically constructed mold of the whale as Ishmael describes it. Yet Moby Dick is physically and undeniably real – but only at the end. The crew must lean on hearsay and the words of captains, both insane and otherwise, to know of his existence. But at the end of the journey, after much toil and searching, they finally catch up to Moby Dick.

Now, considering these symbols (indulge me if you will), what can we take from the idea of a madman pursuing a God figure within the infinite realm of his own soul? By attacking this God figure, to we not, then, attack ourselves? According to the Old Testament, Ahab, Israel’s “most evil” king (1 Kings 16:30) shuns God. Even Elijah shows up to warn Ishmael and Queequeg from voyaging on the Pequod. Why does Ahab need to revenge himself on a God figure? Perhaps because Moby Dick physically harms Ahab, he needs to revenge himself on him. But why the insanity? Other captains came to physical and filial harm by Moby Dick but none lose their minds over it. Perhaps Ahab feels wounded by the idea that something within his soul proves more powerful than his conscious Self – that something dictates his life, his method of physical movement on one good leg. Or perhaps forces outside of Moby Dick govern Ahab’s motivations and lead him toward this interpretation of his circumstances. And these forces twist Ahab against himself, if the God figure exists within his own soul as Moby Dick swims in the sea. After all, Ishmael does introduce us to the mysterious stow-away with devil eyes who speaks in whispers only to Ahab. And we witness the touching moment when Ahab relents in his insanity to Starbuck, crying for peace. The conflict between Ahab and Moby Dick exists only in Ahab’s mind, mutated and twisted by the forces within his soul and without.

One might wonder if Man could live peaceably and happily, as Starbuck implores, simply by leaving Moby Dick alone. But can Man do this? Or, by doing so, would he fly in the face of his instinct? Is the pursuit of Moby Dick the result of an unavoidable force governing human life – wrought from fear and the maddening immensity of the abyss within our own soul, as in the sea, and the forces of the world we inhabit? Must we pursue and conquer Moby Dick in a final effort to control our existence – define it according to our small and insignificant, though comfortable and flattering, terms before the overwhelmingly vast nature of our souls and world crush our psyche? Or do those forces victimize man and inspire him to seek his own death – revenge upon himself?

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Posted by on April 11, 2014 in Herman Melville

 

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My Time of Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor

from the Painting in the Boydell Gallery, by Rev W Peters

 

Why, Sir John, do you think, though we would have thrust virtue out of our hearts by the head and shoulders, and have given ourselves without scruple to hell, that ever the devil could have made you our delight?

Has Sir John Falstaff learned the humour of the age? to suffer tactics similar to his own, turning him into a pathetic minstrel unwittingly singing praises of his own demise? Perhaps his humour, as Nym would overly use the word, permeates the age across gender and social barriers. Mistresses Page and Ford do not count themselves above such deceptive tactics to profit in humour. Nor does Master Fenton.

I gladly meet Falstaff again in this Merry Wives of Windsor. Not only did I miss him after finishing the Henry IVs, but I feel that I know a little more about him in terms of his literary merit. On one level, Shakespeare could have intended to use him as a symbol of the haughty hypocrisy and base normality of English nobility, soldiers and knighthood. Yet when comparing this “Merry” John Falstaff to the Falstaff at young Prince Henry V’s side, we see more of a transition than static statement. Falstaff himself represents the turning of the age in England to one of national conscience and meaning, a state in which he has trouble placing himself. These comic characters of Windsor care little about laws, state regulations or anyone other than themselves for that matter. They do not mind humiliating, propositioning married women, venting their anger and insecurities upon innocents, supporting others against each other for profit or neglecting their vocations for, well…silliness. With the coronation of Henry V, this petty rabbling dissolves away.

Of course, it’s just a play and one which assuredly entertained the masses at the Globe, or wherever Shakespeare staged it. On might think that he abandoned some intellectual integrity in order to coax a laugh or two. Alas, should we forget that we speak of Shakespeare? Of his familiar comedies, I think this one had the most complex plot though simplest adhesive. As in other comedies, deception fuels the humour. Yet the audience sees every deceptive move at every level. They also usually see the perpetrator and victim quite clearly and thusly knowing full well with whom they ought to sympathize. Yet with these Windsor folk, they all suffer as the perpetrator and the victim. So how ought the audience react? Who should they laugh at, pity, sympathize with or scorn?

Due to this complexity, I found the play rather flat in terms of meaning. After they bow, nothing changes either within the minds of the patrons or in the hearts of society. We witnessed one big trick over-cooked by several tiny versions of itself. Life moves on as it had.

But it was funny!

 
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Posted by on November 11, 2013 in William Shakespeare

 

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Thoughts: Little Women

Little Women: Or, Meg, Jo, Beth, and AmyLittle Women: Or, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy by Louisa May Alcott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Do you remember our castles in the air?”

I feel as though I should have liked this book more than I did. By no means does this render the book bad or a waste of time by any stretch of the imagination. I like it. I only wish I liked it more.

Alcott’s story of four young sisters coming of age in young America subtly encapsulates themes of feminism and universal human growth. I often found myself playing my own devil’s advocate when Alcott presents scenes of domestic bliss wrought with the stench of romanticized femininity resurrected from a future yet to transpire in the 1950s. See? She actually advocates for quiet women contented in child-rearing and home-making. Yet, amid the often grueling moralizing and “telling” rather than “showing” in Alott’s style, I sensed a deeper, more universal experience dressed in the circumstantial guise surrounding these women. For someone looking to defend feminist suppression, they can contrive arguments from this book. However, perhaps to a mind unconvinced that a modern audience will fall for such filth and remembering that this modern audience still loves this book, a broader idea may begin to take shape.

Consider the breath of the story. Alcott keenly begins it with young children – very little, barely women – and presents them under circumstances unbecoming to girls who define happiness in life according to material prosperity and social positioning – or, perhaps, according to self-gratification and ideas of fame, leisure and pleasure. Any feminist with static and compartmentalized ideas of feminine freedoms may encourage some of these ambitions but condemn others. Go after fame! Stand tall next to other men who have done so! But do not dream of defining your quality of life according to the social quality of your wedding match.

Fair enough.

Alcott models her story’s finale in a romantic Austen style displaying the world’s most contented middle-aged women who learned much, tumultuously shaped their own characters around the iron-clad morality of Marmee, and prospered because of it despite the surprise brought with that prosperity. Yet their lives in no way emulate their dreams and ambitions – ideas which they had all but completely given up. For shame! To mandate how women live happiest when living a socially prototypical existence as a domestic, finding solace in marriage and abandoning their individual dreams. Go back to the 50s, Alcott!

Whoa, slow down.

As young girls, their ambitious dreams proved the tools of their unhappiness. While living in the moment, they found their true happiness in companionship, friendship and family. They erected their imagined castles in the air according to immature ideas which unfoundedly lead to happiness. They don’t necessarily want their fame or their fortune. They want happiness – as do all men and women. We can’t easily argue how happiness for women lies only in domestic servitude or ordained maternal occupation. Laurie himself found the same enlightenment as the other girls and found his happiness after abandoning hi mis-founded ambition to shock the world as the next Mozart. Learn to feel contented with yourself, not according to any social ideas either for or against the characteristics of your body or circumstances.

As youth degenerates, maturity begins. The girls shed the skins of their ambitions, the keys to their castles in the sky, not as settling souls dejected by social norms but as elated spirits freed from the chains of their misconceptions about paths to happiness. The knights do not save these damsels in distress, but fill a void defined by the women as individuals who come to understand themselves and choose their futures accordingly. I cannot condone any social idiom, whether sanctioned by bigots or pioneers, which prevents a person from searching, struggling and finally understanding the key to their castle in the air.

I say I wish I liked this story more, even though it subtly matches its ideas with its presentation, by describing these characters’ struggles and ultimate enlightenment toward their happiness as individual rather than as social blueprinting, because Alcott deters me a bit with her moralizing (though I hate to imagine myself as Jo’s editor who cut all such passages from her stories) and “corny” language. Fortunately, the lack of preferential styling does not hinder the discovery of these ideas. Perhaps Alcott intended for such language and style to serve the ideas somehow. I do, however, imagine Alcott and Tolstoy would have gotten along capitally.

Now, having said that, who narrated this story?!?! That’s just brilliant.

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Posted by on October 27, 2013 in Louisa May Alcott

 

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My Time of Shakespeare: Two Gentlemen of Verona

From the Painting in the Boydell Gallery by Aug’a Kauffman Zucchi

I do not seek to quench your love’s hot fire,
But qualify the fire’s extreme rage,
Lest it should burn above the bounds of reason.
Lucetta, Act II, Scene VII

I imagine Abbot and Costello performing dramatic devices from The Merchant of Venice for an idea which wouldn’t fully mature until Romeo & Juliet.

Shakespeare’s tale of romantic love may seem like shallow entertainment. However, as in most Shakespeare pieces, he weaves fundamental and universal elements of the human condition into this humorous rendering of a story experienced by all people.

Love – that meaning of life, that shared bond mastered by none but claimed by all, that passion in life to which we find ourselves chemically dependent though it ironically serves us best when focused on others. Shakespeare boldly claims ignorance to the true nature of love by exploring its crevices and peeks, transforming it from a drunken obsession into a raging demand and ultimately into a sort of mirror to our naked character.

As a comedy, Shakespeare playfully manipulates the essence of his art, planting word-plays and terse dialogue to which only live studio audiences or laugh tracks can provide justice. He arguably constructs a less than believable ending to serve his audience and theater’s bottom line.

Yet within the comedy we see two inseparable friends fated by love toward blissful and desperate ends. Love plays the trickster, the maniacal devil of mischief, twisting the relationships and lives of those gathered around its fire. Once revered as a brilliant display, it betrays the friends and lovers with its scorching touch but then ultimately shines its light on the integrity or inconstancy of its pagan idolaters. But we bear the responsibility of indulging the entertainment while seeing the activity in the dark areas over-shadowed by the light which exposes that entertainment. Though motivated by love, one gentlemen becomes the villain who fatefully suffers the forgiveness of one who arguably allows love to transform him. Yet will this villainous friend find happiness in the same way as his forgiver enjoys the fruits of his loving disposition? Even if all ends well, can he call his life free of the envy and animosity which love inspires, that same passion which leads another man to a very different life experience.

Within the text, one may notice the soliloquies jammed between the terse dialogue. During these inner monologues, our characters consider how love will either force them to betray or indulge themselves and how that choice will dictate their lives. Though these characters make different choices regarding self-indulgence or love’s self-betrayal, they seem to respect that the shared inspiration of love drives them, albeit to different experiences. Alas, perhaps this only helps me swallow Shakespeare’s ending – likely scripted in order to glue a certain smile on every patron’s face as they leave the theater only to live what they just witnessed on the stage.

 
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Posted by on September 17, 2013 in William Shakespeare

 

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Thoughts: The Vicomte de Bragelonne

Vicomte de Bragelonne (The D'Artagnan Romances, #3)Vicomte de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I finished it! It took me longer to complete this book than it did War and Peace! I should reconsider my obsessive compulsion toward unabridged literature and my inability to accept a blemish on my record of consecutive completed reads. This book just dragged on and on and on and on and…

As the third installment of the d’Artagnan Romances, this book serves as a transition from the notorious three musketeers and their Gascon friend to the lives of other French and English characters – youth usurping inevitable age and power subverting nobility. We get a mere glimpse of Porthos and Aramis, a small portion more of Athos in order to indulge his iron-clad honor and still only a bit more of d’Artagnan who reaches the age of retirement and moves his focus from reckless gallivanting and adventure for material comforts which compromise his character. Our friends simply serve to contrast the new kids on the block, to show the reader a transitioning world through politics and the integrity of a culture.

I did not find the story bad. I found the tedious nature of its telling nearly unbearable. As a serialized story bound together in, not one, but three novels, I have to scold the publishing world for trapping a novel-readers mind, habits and expectations in a story with no arc. It just keeps going! The novel form does not fully captivate this story. Would one staple all the scripts in one TV show season together and release it as a novel? It felt like sitting on a bench watching the people walk by. At first, you absorb yourself in the drama between the first passing couple. But then you try and care about the grimy homeless guy who followed while still thinking about the drama between the couple. Then the studious girl after him just frustrates you and you want to go home.

I liked the story. I found its telling nearly unbearable. I will wait a while before starting Louise de La Valliere which I will eventually read only because of my obsessive compulsion to finish the series and my general inability to leave a literary investment unsatisfied.

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Posted by on September 11, 2013 in Alexandre Dumas

 

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My Time of Shakespeare: Coriolanus

From the Painting by Sir J. Noel Paton, RSA

 

Boy!

Never has Shakespeare entertained me so much. He has confounded me, interrogated me and mirrored me but never has he handed me a summer Hollywood blockbuster – a chilling and thrilling script of violent tragedy stoking societal passions from all sides.

Despite the gripping plot, I tried to focus on Caius Marcius’ character. As in all of Shakespeare’s plays, the characteristics of a hero or villain shape the play and bend our sympathies – not the action or twisting storylines. Through this reading I discovered the deep tragedy of Coriolanus’ life and, again, found myself sympathizing for a man with whom I shared little in terms of personality, characteristics or moral conviction.

Ironically, Coriolanus does not fit anywhere, despite his nurturing which would seek to make him great everywhere. Burdened with his military prowess, all states would willingly use him but then shun him when he exhibits any personal, rather than professional, opinions and choices. Neither Roman nor Volscian societies leave room for the man, only for the great soldier. He must suffer the fate of a product – manufactured and used according to others’ needs then discarded when dysfunctional. The tribunes know they share the same function but also know how to remain relevant by manipulating their manufacturer and refraining from exhibiting any personal character. They don’t even claim to have their own voice but rather the voice of the people.

In contrast, Shakespeare describes a staunch man in Coriolanus, embittered toward the citizens of Rome. He fully embraces the fact that their support shifts like the winds and how they sooner praise a hero as condemn him. He forces many of democracy’s faithful to evaluate its practical application – rulers elected to power by the mob while manipulating that same mob in order to maintain that power which does not technically belong to them but rather to the people. Coriolanus sees the farce and scorns how the people willfully embrace this illusion and how the nobility pander to it. Rather than behave as a tamed agent of that system, like the tribunes, he uncontrollably voices his opinions. He cannot shroud his sensibilities though he would want to, and promises to, several times.

His mother’s guidance sets him on a path to standardize warlike honor and to the pinnacle of a soldier’s glory. He respects and listens to his mother above all other people and shifts his thinking at the twisting of her tongue. While witnessing their interactions, one sees a man’s nature repressed for the sake of a profitable nurturing – a nurturing which would ultimately spurn him. He bows to her advice and represses his natural inclinations. His mother manipulates him in the same way as the tribunes manipulate the people! He speaks of power when his mother cultivates the root of it.

Can one compare Coriolanus to the very people he would see weakened and disavowed of their “power”? the mighty, god-like soldier compared to a group which outnumbers any army or government? the man who sways in his allegiances? someone who willfully succumbs to the illusion of his power when others in government determine his fate? the proudly disrespectful man calmed by the words and manipulations of a loved benefactor?

Why would he resent an entity which resembles him so much? Perhaps Coriolanus’ and the people share a similar nature, manipulated and contorted by the nurturing of those in real power. During certain episodes, it seems that Coriolanus opposes the people as if, like his mother, he would oppose himself, his natural self – the weak little boy within who pines after his mother’s attention in hopes of feeling accepted for his nature, the society that loves its illusions only because they don’t want to feel insignificant.

Consider, also, Coriolanus’ relationship with Aufidius. As bitter enemies, they share many similar characteristics – national pride, violent propensities, a deep investment and love for honor and nobility, etc. Yet, as many have said before, two people so alike rarely get along – like two hurricanes colliding with equal force. We witness the demise of Coriolanus at the hands of his mirror image, a representation of Coriolanus’ nurturing demolishing the boy of Coriolanus’ nature. But even though their nurturing set them at odds, I wonder if they, too, shared natural characteristics and might have shared a friendly bond in appreciation of the magnetic pull that brings the two hurricanes to collision. Perhaps they could have been one hurricane.

Alas, we call this a tragedy because Shakespeare presents Coriolanus as a victim to his inescapable nurturing. Perhaps the boy wanted peace, companionship, acceptance and a family life. But the world denies him as a result of his experience, his nurturing by the will of manipulation. Will the world, then, also deny the people as a result of their experience in the grip of manipulation?

 
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Posted by on July 23, 2013 in William Shakespeare

 

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Thoughts: The Cloud Atlas Book/Film Experience

Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas by David Mitchell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After finally watching the movie, I raced to my local bookstore. Waiting on a shipment through an online retailer simply would not do. I had to start reading Cloud Atlas immediately, even if I did feel like one among the manipulated masses who the publisher hopes will buy the book after watching the movie.

After finishing the film, I remember lavishing the central idea – the connectedness of people’s lives, not defined by a singular birth and death but rather by a non-linear existence unshackled by time or space. I appreciate the artistic license taken by the Wachowski siblings in representing this idea with the same actors playing characters in each storyline. After all, the art of film differs from the art of literature and one must make the most of their chosen artistic vehicle.

Yet each artistic medium wields certain qualities which the other cannot fain to employ. I don’t think I have read a book quite like Cloud Atlas though I’ve come across the idea several times. I believe many writers strive for such excellence in presenting an ancient and universal idea, and, in fact, have thought of framing a book with shifting narrative styles and voices. But few have succeeded with the same profound effect with which Mitchell has succeeded. Could Neal Stephenson interlace his science-fiction mastery with the voice of Daniel DeFoe? Could John Grisham weave James Joyce into his conspiracy narrative? And can they do this without alienating the reader?

Consider the book’s form. Zachary’s post-apocalyptic world, ironically backwards and decontructed, resembling human infancy rather than civilized glory, represents the focal point of the books construction. The book ends with the beginning while it moves chronologically forward and then backwards after reaching the focal point. Within our traditional frame of mind, Mitchell has debilitated linear integrity lending credibility to the non-linear existence of the Soul.

However, I admit I read the book in awe of Mitchell’s talent but felt disengaged at times – like listening to the most proficient virtuoso without feeling moved by the piece. Mitchell fascinated my intellect but, again, at times, failed to charge my spirit. But with any good book, contemplation would connect the idea to a life.

I found the first few subplots random with their characters and stories. Even as I finished the book, I think the Wachowski siblings embellish the connectedness theme more flagrantly than Mitchell does. However, I credit Mitchell for gracefully walking the line between random stories and connected characters. If he blatantly protrays the connections as obviously as the Wachowski siblings do, the reader/viewer might feel isolated from others – thinking that only a select few, divinely gifted with special birthmarks, experience this connection through the ages. Because of the random element, we might consider the possibility of connectivity between all people regardless of historical or divine significance – and think of the birthmark simply as the mark of humanity tattooed on all people.

I also maintain that this randomness helps others to take a more literal interpretation of the idea. If we look for connections among random stories, we don’t necessarily find them only in birthmarks and actors’ faces. We find them in characteristics, personalities and in reactions and promotions of social constructs. Of course, we have witnessed patterns of oppression, revolution, discrimination, love, etc throughout human history. As Tolstoy would argue, these human elements dictate our history far more than any one person’s free choice. This indicates a certain connectedness between people even when separated by aeons.

Not only do our historical patterns indicate a certain connectedness, but our yearning for meaning and belief in life enforce our common bonds. The same 19th century abolitionist would undoubtedly revolt against the Unanimity labor system. And that same revolutionary might delve into the dangerous abyss of investigative journalism to expose the evil plots of powerful men. Should we allow time to dictate how we perceive our existence rather than this obvious and more humane similarity?

Again, I did not find the idea complicated or new. But I found Mitchell’s presentation elegant in its style and beautiful in its use of seemingly insignificant and random people. The birth marks, Frobisher’s possession of Adam Ewing’s diary, Sonmi’s fascination with “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”, etc all serve to embellish this idea in a mystical way. As Cavendish said, “As if Art is the What, not the How!” I think Mitchell presented the What with a fascinating and thought-provoking How. Do we need anything else?

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Posted by on July 15, 2013 in David Mitchell

 

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